Goodnight Mister Tom follows the story of an 8-year-old evacuee, William Beech, who is sent to live with widower Tom Oakley in the quiet Dorset village of Little Weirwold during the Second World War.
From the moment I walked through the doors of the auditorium, I felt transported into a rural setting as I was greeted by a deceptively simple, yet impressive, two-tiered set; I’m fairly sure that there was even the aroma of real wood. The pre-show announcement was in the style of a radio broadcast with a nod to the wartime setting, continuing with the opening ensemble groupings, and the tone for the matinee performance was set.
As Director Lesley Bates indicated in her programme notes, the mere mention of Goodnight Mister Tom often evokes warm sentimental feelings and an affectionate smile for a bygone era that is generally considered to be “the good old days”. While there may be an element of truth in that, the harsh realities of poverty, strife, sickness and death, grief, child abuse and bullying, protocols and policies that seem so unacceptable to current day thinking, and the threat of war were ever present; it is the indomitable spirit of individuals and communities to withstand all of this with bravery, compassion, determination, humour and love that enabled society to conquer and rise above such challenges.
With these themes as the backdrop for a play that focuses intently on the relationship between two ‘damaged’ characters, grief-stricken widower Tom and neglected, abused William, so much rests on the quality of performances from the principal actors. Alistair Faulkner plays Tom with less of the curmudgeonly aspect but with a gentler, warmer and more protective nature than I have seen portrayed in previous productions, choosing more to be secluded as a means of coping with his all-encompassing grief than innately bad tempered, and I found this side of his character to be absolutely charming and very engaging. He forms a believable and endearing connection with James Cates as William, who gives a captivating performance as he reflects the trauma that William experiences, his spirit and courage, and overwhelming need for love, affection and protection.
There are three main characters throughout this play: Tom, William – and Sammy, the dog. I have seen a few productions of Goodnight Mister Tom over the years; all have had puppets depicting Sammy – but none have been as convincing and adorable as this one. It’s not just the fact that this puppet was made by a professional puppet maker (on loan from Cambridge Theatre Company) so looks like a beautiful border collie, but the incredible skill from Tom Morath to effectively breathe life into this lovable creature as he portrays the loyal canine relationship between the dog, Tom and William. Despite Morath obviously being present with Sammy throughout, the way he handles the puppet means that Sammy becomes an integral organic character and is mesmerizing.
There are lighter moments amongst the tension, pathos and poignant drama, and no-one embraces that more in this production than Ollie Boyle as William’s fellow evacuee, flamboyant and artistic Zach; his boundless energy, effervescence, comic timing and joie de vivre has the audience laughing aloud at his character’s exploits and his performance is a delight.
With Faulkner, Cates and Boyle the only actors to portray single characters, this is truly an ensemble production and there no weak links at all. Every cast member has their moments to shine, but never to the point of detracting from anyone else; with distinct characterizations, there are ample opportunities for the cast to show their versatility and they do this with proficiency and panache, most notably Emma Way, George Cotterill, Tamsin Jacson and Morath (with a brief cameo as David as well as the larger role of ‘handling’ Sammy).
The production elements are flawless: there is so much attention to detail in the scenery (even down to damp, peeling wallpaper) and props; costumes, hair and make-up are all evocative of the period, each costume contributing to establishing the different persona for those members of the cast taking on more than one role; and the lighting and sound effects all help to establish the date and locations, while also enhancing the ambience. Original music from Pam Edmund and first-class direction from Bates ensures that the narrative and locations flow, scene changes are smooth and the pace is almost perfect (just a few instances of pre-empting what is about to happen next), with a subtle yet noticeable alteration in speed between country and city settings.
On the surface, this may seem an odd choice for a pre-Christmas production but it is a combination of thought provoking and heart-warming, both of which are arguably integral to the festive season and both present in abundance in this sold out production.
If you have bought your tickets for this endearing production, you will find so much to love and enjoy in the performances (but remember to take tissues with you – just in case!). The show run continues from Tuesday 10 until Saturday 14 December.